Saturday, February 19, 2022

The Guest List: The Station Nightclub Fire, America’s Deadliest Rock Concert, on Reelz

If you don’t know you’re 1980s metal hair bands, you might confuse Great White with Whitesnake. Neither band would like that, especially the latter. Whitesnake’s biggest hit was “Here I Go Again,” which featured Tawny Kitaen dancing on a car. Great White’s biggest hit was probably “Once Bitten Twice Shy,” but they will be forever infamous for the 2003 fire at a nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island, sparked by their pyrotechnics. One hundred people lost their lives that night. David Bellino exposes the negligence that caused the tragedy and captures the community’s lingering trauma in The Guest List, The Station Nightclub Fire, America’s Deadliest Rock Concert, which premieres tomorrow on Reelz.

To document the Station fire, Bellino had a lot of eerily relevant primary video sources available to integrate into the doc. As fate would dictate, there was actually a cameraman in the club, who recorded the stage erupting in flames behind Great White frontman Jack Russell. Mercifully, we see only brief snippets of that footage. However, we watch extensive excerpts from a preceding interview conducted backstage, by two aspiring college rock journalists/DJs. The interviewer survived the fire, but the cameraman did not.

A great deal of the blame fell on the club owners, Jeffrey and Michael Derderian, one of whom was ironically also a broadcast reporter, who had previously covered a trampling tragedy in another nightclub. Yet, perhaps the most eye-opening aspects of
Guest List reveal the extent to which state government corruption made the fatal fire possible and helped sweep it under the rug afterward.

Guest List
’s talking heads generally judge former Attorney General Patrick Lynch (D) to be a problematically passive prosecutor rather than a crusader for justice. The judge who presided over the case, Francis Darigan (appointed to state courts by Govs. Garrahy and Sundlin) probably comes across even worse, due to his rulings stifling victims’ statements during trial. Of course, the film’s harshest judgement is reserved for the West Warwick fire marshal, who like the Derderians, refused to participate in Bellino’s film.

To his credit, Russell talks very frankly and at-length on-camera. He is clearly a very flawed person, but he doesn’t duck any of the questions. However, the real “star” of the film is Joe Kinan, who was the last survivor to make it out of the Station alive, suffering severe full body burns in the process.

A lot of people get called out for making costly mistakes in
Guest List, so it is important to acknowledge some people did the right thing, like Gretchen Wilson and Dee Snider, whose support was critical for an important benefit concert. The latter emerges as a major spokesman for the West Warwick victims and survivors, which is why he appears throughout the documentary. In fact, Snider makes a very valid argument that those so dearly impacted by the fire were largely dismissed by the elite do-gooders, because of cultural and class-based snobbery.

Guest List
(an ironic but fitting title) is a rare film in which 1980s nostalgia isn’t so much fun anymore. It can be tough to watch, but viewers can take satisfaction from the way Bellino and company refuse to pull their punches. The Rhode Island establishment probably hopes you do not watch it, but the average folk of West Warwick deserve to tell their stories. The Station fire had a lot of national press when it happened, but as is so often the case, the media soon moved on, so many of the most salient details will be news to many viewers—but they are important. Compelling as an expose and for the survivors’ stories, The Guest List: America’s Deadliest Rock Concert (the title often appears slightly differently in various places) airs Sunday night (2/20) on Reelz.